Sermon: The Opposite of Schadenfreude

Thursday, April 6, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Maundy Thursday
watch this service online (readings start around 8:06; sermon starts around 15:56)

Over the last month or so, I have unexpectedly become a big fan of a show I’d never heard of before – a show called “Hot Ones.” It’s a series on YouTube in which the host interviews celebrities – but as they answer questions, they have to eat these increasingly spicy chicken wings. And these wings get HOT – like practically weapons-grade spiciness. As the show goes on, you can see how visibly uncomfortable people get – their faces get all red; they start sweating and tearing up and chugging milk; by the end, some are literally yelling swearing at the host. Heh, it’s a pretty fun time.

I enjoy the show mostly for the conversations. Because these chicken wings are so absurdly spicy, it’s just painful and distracting enough that it kind of peels away the carefully cultivated and composed exterior that people come in with and forces them to just be real – to show who they really are and say what they really think. It’s hard to keep looking cool and poised when your mouth is on fire and your face is melting.

But because of that, I have to admit that there’s also a bit of a guilty pleasure in this show for me. Most of the guests on the show are fairly humble and nervous about how well they’ll be able to handle the wings. But every once in a while, you’ll get someone who comes in who’s just super cocky and full of themselves – usually it’s some young hotshot White guy – someone who is just chock full of unearned confidence that they are going to crush these wings like a champ. It is so satisfying to watch them crash and burn – by the end, they’re in so much pain that they’re like trying to snort milk to cool their sinuses and they can’t even pretend to be cool anymore. It’s satisfying to watch their egos be taken down a peg – and then another, and another.

The Germans actually have a word for this kind of feeling (because of course they do). They call it schadenfreude. There’s no precise translation for it in English, but the basic meaning of schadenfreude is: taking pleasure in the suffering of someone else.

I’d be willing to bet that everyone in this room has experienced at least a moment or two of schadenfreude at some point in their life. I’m sure you can think of some examples. Often it’s in minor things: like driving down Highway 30 and a car zooms past you going way over the speed limit – and then a few miles later, you see them on the shoulder getting a ticket. Or sometimes it’s not so minor – like when a significant other breaks your heart and dumps you and you later find out they got cheated on by someone else. 

It’s just this little zing of satisfaction at seeing someone “get what’s coming to them.” But as fun as it can be, there is this kind of mean-spirited edge to it. The little daily moments of schadenfreude we experience are mostly harmless – but it’s the kind of feeling that can quickly become toxic when it gets out of hand. And that’s because even minor moments of schadenfreude grow from troubled places within us: it grows from feelings of hurt and resentment, feelings of envy and entitlement and even hate. Allowed to grow and fester, these feelings end up alienating us and making it difficult for us to show compassion and empathy, especially for people who think and act differently than we do.

It’s not too big a surprise that schadenfreude is something that shows up _often_ in our nation’s public life. It’s a symptom of how intensely polarized and divided we’ve become, especially after the pandemic. We see it in celebrity gossip and international affairs – but more than anywhere else, we see it in our politics.

The governing of our nation has become so bitterly partisan and divided. It seems like way too many politicians define success not by crafting good policies that benefit everyone, but by making sure the other side loses. On one side, you’ve got conservatives pushing divisive policies purely for the goal of “owning the libs,” without regard for who it harms. On the other side, you’ve got liberals reflexively arguing with just about any idea put forward by conservatives, regardless of its merits, simply because a conservative suggested it. And any time either side has some kind of scandal, their opponents are there gobbling up every detail with antagonistic glee. 

Our life together gets reduced to a game of constantly trying to one-up each other. We divide ourselves up into winners and losers – my team and the other team – and, along the way, we forget that we are all in this together.

It’s a mindset that in every way contrasts with Jesus, as we encounter him in scripture. And of all the days in the liturgical calender, this is probably the one on which that contrast is most painfully clear. In our gospel reading, Jesus is gathered in the upper room with his disciples on the last night of his life. And he already knows that there are people in this room who are playing for the other team, whether they mean to or not

Yet Jesus isn’t out to antagonize them; he isn’t sitting there hoping for them to “get what’s coming to them.” Jesus greets them as friends and treats them with the most astonishing and unshakable love. Even though he is a wise and respected rabbi, Jesus comes to them without any sense of ego or entitlement. Instead, he lays aside the dignity of his position and humbly kneels before each of his students in turn and gently washes their feet. It’s such a shockingly tender act that it makes his disciples deeply uncomfortable. And among those whom he washes, he includes Judas – and, for that matter, Peter! Jesus already knows fully and completely what they will do – what Judas has already done – but whatever feelings of hurt or anger or betrayal he may be feeling he lays them aside in favor of this tender act of love.

Jesus has no interest in schadenfreude. He loves his people completely, even those who turn their backs on him in his hour of greatest need. Jesus doesn’t take pleasure in anyone’s suffering. Instead, he takes suffering upon himself. He willingly sacrifices his own life in order to bring about reconciliation. He empties himself completely in order to be reconciled with us, even when we seem hell-bent on remaining divided. 

Jesus loves humanity with a love that cannot be broken – with a love that stops at absolutely nothing to reach its object – with a love that never wavers or fades away, no matter what we say or do.

Jesus never gives up on being in relationship with us. He never writes us off, even though he knows our flaws and our failings all too well. Jesus doesn’t need spicy chicken wings in order to get us to show him exactly who we are. He knows. Jesus knows the guilt that Peter lives with after having denied him three times – so he gives him three more chances to say what he wishes he would have said. And I fully believe that if Judas hadn’t given up on himself and ended his life, Jesus absolutely would have found a way to be reconciled with him as well. Jesus is love, to the very core of his being.

And this is the love to which he commands us this evening: love one another as I have loved you. What might it look like in your life to lay aside your pride or dignity – to resist the temptation to take pleasure in the suffering of someone obnoxious, and instead deliberately choose to treat them with love and compassion? How can you pursue reconciliation with your enemies, following Christ, who has reconciled us to himself?

We come to this table tonight to be fed by the one who poured himself out for us, body and blood, out of love. I pray that this meal may be for us the opposite of a pile of super spicy chicken wings – that we may come to this table with humility and gather with each other with love. I pray that, in this meal, the love with which Christ poured himself out may seep into each one of us, into every pore of our being, and that this love may burn away our sense of schadenfreude, our sense of separation from our neighbor, and remind us that we are all forgiven, reconciled, and loved. Forever.

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